MC David Iverach
John was born in the North Sydney Hospital in 1938. Hospitals were not so plentiful in those days and his mother had to travel all the way from Carlingford.
He attended West Epping primary school, Eastwood Tech, then Homebush Boys. He showed early promise with sport and language. Then to Armidale Teachers College where his studies, along with most eighteen year old young men was interrupted by compulsory service in the “Nato’s”, the National military training program of the time. John was in 4 Platoon, A Company, 12th Battalion, 1st intake of 1957. He served under platoon commander Hereford. You can read his song about it on the inside cover of today’s Program.
There’s a great story about John entering the boxing ring while in the “Nasho’s” against a much larger opponent. John, wearing his glasses and with oversized shorts hanging past his knees sized up his opposition and in that classic voice of his announced ‘bring it on’. Fortunately someone of uncommon sense intervened and the bout did not proceed.
After graduating from teachers college his first posting was to Menindee, where he received some first class mentoring in teaching and life’s other pursuits. In case you didn’t know, John was writing songs and poetry all through these experiences. He did a BA by correspondence with the Uni of New England and was transferred back to Sydney to teach at Burnside Central School at North Parramatta where an attractive young woman called Dale Morgan was teaching. They married and moved to Glebe in 1964, where they stayed ever since.
John retired from teaching early because the game had changed in a way he didn’t like. Discipline had become a dirty word. ‘Protocols’ and ‘key performance indicators’ and such like were more important than making sure kids learnt what they needed to know.
He took up busking and continued life with extraordinary gusto. There are so many busking stories. Some people thought he was destitute and he felt they liked thinking that so he never corrected them! He made good beer money and was very appreciative of the generosity people showed.
There are so many things to say and remember about John that we can’t possibly do justice to them in the next hour or two. So we should regard this as the beginning of the process of celebrating John’s life.
Dale will reminisce about what it was like to be with this extraordinary bloke for almost 50 years. And Sean will share some perspectives on his and Lachlan’s experiences as his sons. I will reflect on the privilege of being able to call John a mate. We will only scratch the surface. Everyone here has something unique to say about John because that’s the sort of bloke he was. He cared, he looked, he saw, he listened, wrote it down and when the time was right reminded us with that wonderful voice. Without us being aware of it, it had the effect of making us look, listen and care more.
For many of us, the first introduction to John was via his songs and poems. Original words often put to the oldest of tunes. But no good as background music! They demand attention. The attention (or lack of it) that someone paid to Johns impromptu recitals on hearing them for the first time told you a lot about that person. Just sharing enjoying the experience was enough to start a friendship.
So we going to have a selection of songs and poems and we’re going to sing – because that’s what he loved, what we love about him and he was never happier than when everyone joined in the chorus. That’s how we’re going to send him off.
We’ll start with Christina leading us in ‘Take Your Bulldozers Away’.
Now we will hear from Dale.
I need to say of Dale that the old saying that ‘behind all great men is a super woman’ has never been truer. Known unfairly as ‘John’s wife’, it was Dale that introduced him to the bush music club – the rest is history! And we all know John was not exactly perfect in his habits or self-discipline. Dale, you saved and galvanised him, time and again – we all owe an enormous debt to you. On behalf of all of us – thank you.
Dale Dengate - My Reminiscences – Roisin and Cal, when toddlers helped me with my father’s funeral so they are here to help me now And they have a few words to share too.
Lachlan, Angie and Wendy since she arrived from N.Z, haven’t stopped working round the house, making cuppas, washing up and clearing away. I think they took notice of the fridge magnet I had in the kitchen: No woman ever shot a man while he was washing up. And we really miss John then because that was always his job.
Sean and Mandy have been putting together slides showing aspects of John’s life integrating Bob Bolton’s collection of John performing since the 1960s. Lachlan helped me select the music.
Dear friends have been generous and warm. David called each day as we planned the running order, old friend from Bathurst Teachers College days Peter Grislis negotiated with the Friend in Hand Pub were the wake will continue. Gay typeset my draft running order and had it printed, Kate Scott lent us her wonderful painting of John which we used for his last book; if I thanked everyone individually, there would be no time to say anything else.
We are here to share the Last moments with John. He left us the way he would have chosen to go, although today’s funeral is different from the youthful discussion of what he’d like at his funeral, which were quite Gothic. The Kevans boys would be there, Jacko and Dennis would have a big fight and fall into the grave hole with him, followed by Declan Affley, Chris Kempster, Brian Mooney singing rebel songs, ASIO inaccurately recording the union organisers, Seamus and Bobby Campbell and Bill Morgan starting another fight. Well the first four have already gone to have a rest or a song, but the others are much quieter lads from the sound of their recent calls.
However, John got the second part of that vividly imagined scene of his. My sister Jan and brother-in-law Steve rang this morning from a dismally wet Wales. They told me they had stopped their walking group by a bleak lakeside and had read one of John’s scurrilous poems on Rupert Murdock, found on Mark Gregory’s union website. With the rain pouring down on those assembled, it was just the dismal Celtic picture John had described in the 1970s.
As I haven’t been able to respond to everyone, I will try to answer a few of the questions most asked
How and why did he go – doctors certificate says: myocardial infarction or cardiomyopathy over 2 years, but we have proof of the real cause. It was the dismal efforts of the Aussie Cricket team which he stayed up each night to watch, after which he would come to bed so upset he would be tossing and turning unable to sleep. Many will recall his song written after the humiliating defeat of the Aussie cricketers by Zimbabwe – I’ll drive to the gap and jump over old chap if we’re beaten by the Poms… and of course he was worried about the future of Australia, for which evidence you can refer to last song.
Where? He died at home after surveying our Glebe estate, picking up the camellia petals from his much loved lawn and trimming a few blades of grass with nail scissors. He returned to the balcony and we shared our early morning cuppa and discussed how fortunate our lives had been, what a lovely clear sunny Sydney morning it was and what we planned for the rest of the day.
Although we usually pursued our different interests during the day we often sat upon our balcony and discussed how fortunate we were to have such a lovely family. We’d all been together on the weekend to celebrate John’s mother Kits’ 99th birthday. Many of you know the song Bare legged Kate which John wrote for Kit.
We knew we were lucky to live in Glebe. When we got together to talk about the day’s activities and people we’d been with, John would have the most entertaining stories about the passing parade of characters with whom he shared the streets of Sydney. He would often pause in the discussion and shortly after, he would start a verse or song or come up with a new set of words or a play on the words he’s just heard. Really, when trying to decide what to say about John there were so many memories that came back as words from his songs and verses or I‘d be singing in the shower and by the time I came out he had a new set of words to the tunes. His parodies were unique in that he often played on the original rhymes, so that when I was practising Poverty, Poverty Knock, my loom is saying all day… he came up with Royalty, Royalty shock, Give ‘em a cut in their pay. It made it difficult when singing the original as you’d often find yourself switching to John’s word, so contemporary and relevant.
David suggested I should explain to those not in the folk scene why John Dengate’s work was unique. Words were so important that he felt you should hear every word. Again, we haven’t time, but ask people at the afternoon tea, the wake or look on all the websites at the tributes that have been quite detailed. Much of his verse was written in the style of the bush tradition with its precise metres and rhymes found in Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson works. That is why we’ve chosen two for you to sing.
Also he was a political satirist, often using irony where the meaning of the words is often the reverse or not what they seem to be saying on the surface. The words were not meant to be taken literally as in that Aussie tradition of saying: Well you’re really clever aren’t you? When we imply the opposite.
Indeed, I had occasion to say that to John, after he rushed into a caravan, where we planned to sleep the night, then rushed out leaving the keys inside and slamming the door. So as he wrote in Terry’s wedding poem..’we had to sleep in the cold car.’ But that was the literal truth and he snored in the front seat and I froze in the back. People have asked me did he ever write me songs. He certainly wrote passionate letters, verses and sent me drawings from residential school at Armidale Uni of N.E. I came across some recently and wondered should I destroy these impassioned outpourings of a young man and decided to share them with John and we had a lovely morning recollecting the years.
His writing covered real people and his particularly his own experiences of life in all sorts of situations, many which are seldom written about as in Rectal Bleeding calypso, palpitations, cardiologists and a stomer which rhymes with Homer. John’s observations of the world around him and an expression of his values are found in his work.
One of the questions asked by the funeral directors is about religion. After thinking – totally irreverent, I recalled John had won prizes at Epping C of E SS, but we both grew to feel that religious institutions limited the concepts of god, humanity and how one should live. We both believed strongly in the wonder of the world, loved the diversity of humanity and felt that it was not our place to judge how others chose to live but that social justice and equity should be available to all. But I won’t pontificate, as John, ever the teacher, had been known to do – just say John’s values are clearly written in his words.
Someone did suggest we might be politicising John too much, but as Colleen Burke commented – You can’t over politicise John Dengate.
John was totally eccentric in more ways than you could imagine, but was always great company; we shared so much including our sense of humour and a certain cynicism about organizations, institutions
It will be hard to accept that things will change, but he will live forever in his words…and his grandchildren
Thank you Dale.
Before we hear Peter Mace recite John’s last poem I will reflect a little about John.
John was feisty. If you wanted an argument, you were never disappointed, if you wanted a fight, he was up for it, if you shared a challenge you knew he wouldn’t be the one to falter.
This resolute determination was exemplified in his running. Running became important to John when he became aware, on jogging back from a pub in Balmain, that he (and I) were terribly unfit. He resolved to do something about it. Over the next 30 years, John ran the 5km track at Centennial Park more than 1200 times. Once he ran it 5 times on the same day. And I can assure you that on every occasion he gave it his best. His fastest time was 21.25. In May this year, after his colectomy bag was removed after recovering from bowel cancer, he ran it in just over 39 minutes. You try doing that! He ran two marathons. He was underprepared for the first one and I thought he could not possibly finish it. He was out on his feet with 15km to go. But he would not give up and he rose up to his full height to cross the line. But he was disappointed in himself. So onto marathon number two at age 50. This time on Anzac day with the 26 miles back and forth around the old Holsworthy army barracks. This time he finished full on running in under four hours. Part of his training was doing 500 skips without a miss and if he missed he would start again – and when he finished that he would do over the punching bag!
But cricket was his great love and he was pretty good. He was a fearless opening batsman who valued his wicket – much in the Boycott style. His captain once suggested he try and push the scoring along today. John responded by suggesting, in that case, it might be better if a more aggressive batsman faced the new ball attack. Suffice to say there were no volunteers.
Golf came later. There’s a 4 iron on the coffin. He hit a hole in one on the 11th at Royal Marrickville with that while playing in a foursomes competition with his great friend Peter Grisilis. Peter by the way, following John, put his shot 6 inches away. John often thought he might have repeated the feat except that the trees along right hand side of the fairway grew larger. You have to understand John never hit a straight ball – a controlled hook he called it. John was not a pretty golfer.
The only time I saw John bluffed was by the bloody bunker in front of the 6th green at Marrickville. He swore it had a golf ball magnet and once his ball was in it, which was often, rhythm, humour, language and demeanour all deteriorated. It was best not to talk en route to the 7th tee.
John was a keen gardener. He kept the small Glebe lawn beautiful using used shears made from BHP steel. He used the same pair for 30 years until they finally broke and were replaced by a pair made in China. ‘Piece of shit’ he swore. Vitriolic comments about all Chinese manufacturing efforts followed! Lament about the loss of ours. Eventually we repaired the “made in Australia” pair and the lawn recovered.
I am not going to say anything about drinking or gambling, other than he had a fine palette for beer and wine, knew every pub that has Guinness on tap and had a lousy understanding of the mathematics of gambling – or maybe he did understand the maths but just didn’t care. I think one of the things he missed most on retiring from teaching was not being in charge of the punters club.
Peter why don’t you share his last poem with us – it captures a lot of that spirit.
Royal babies, queens and kings, out of tune broken strings,
Bad, ill-written verses.
We have to cope with government's stealth, in vain we seek for answers.
We have to cope with failing health, with corporate crooks who steal our wealth,
We have to cope with cancers.
Pommy bastards, spieling Yanks ... the curses are unending ...
Half-blind batsmen, greedy banks, buy still we stand in stubborn ranks,
For all that's worth defending.
We won't surrender, won't give in, although our hair is greying;
We come from tough, rebellious kin ...
Sometimes we lose, sometimes we win ...
We go on disobeying.
Last year my dad was diagnosed with bowel cancer. In November I was visiting him in hospital. He was preparing for an operation to cut out part of his bowel in an attempt to remove the cancer. He’d just been through chemo therapy, which is not pleasant at the best of times, but his chemo treatment had completely messed up the medication that was managing his heart condition. In this state he was trying to prepare himself for an operation where there was no guarantee that they would get all the cancer. With the benefit of hindsight it was clear that I had visited him on the day when he was at his lowest point in dealing with the cancer. And at that point he thought he was going to die. For me it was a painful conversation to have but I remember him saying “well, if my times up, I’ve had a good life”. It was said with genuine conviction. He wasn’t looking for sympathy. He truly believed he’d had a good life. Now he ended up winning the cancer battle. The operation was a success, albeit his heart was never the same.
But it was that memory that got me thinking over the last week, how can you measure whether someone has had a good life? I think one of the most confronting and honest ways is to look yourself in the eye on death’s door and judge yourself. If at that moment you honestly think you’ve had a good life, then the chances are you probably have.
The other test is to see the impact you have had on other people’s lives. Were you loved? Will you be missed? Do people remember you as having a positive impact on their lives? As I look around the Chapel today and see a packed house I know John Dengate was truly loved and will be greatly missed. I know that because of the things people have said to me over the last week, I know that because I can see the look on people’s faces. I know that because I’ve read so many messages on different web sites. The message was loud and clear and it’s written all over every single one of us here today. He was a great man and he will be truly missed.
So he had a good life and he was loved by many. But the thing that has been occupying my thoughts over the last week is how did he do it? What made him a great man that was loved by so many?
I think one of the things that he did better than anyone I’ve ever met is that he was able to keep life simple. By that I mean he just put all his energy into doing the things he loved with the people he loved. He was able to block out life’s distractions and ignore the pressures of life, he held in contempt the conservative expectations of society and he shunned the commitments that lock people into a certain lifestyle that makes them feel like they’re on a treadmill to no where.
Let me tell you, it’s not easy to simplify life this way. A very good friend of mine, John Iverach, once said to me, “John is so uncomplicated, life for him so simple, and yet at the same time there is so much to him - there is a genius to this that I appreciate more and more as the years go by.”
I’m not saying he was always a master of this philosophy. There would have been times in his life with a young family to provide for and a mortgage to deal with that he would have been somewhat distracted. But as a son growing up with him you’d never know. Because he always had time to play cricket in the back lane and when the sun went down we’d move the game of cricket into the hall way of our house at Glebe. When Summer and Spring changed to Winter and Autumn we’d play football in the back lane and when the sun went down we’d play football in the hall way. Let it be known that the width of my parent’s hall way in Glebe is about 1 metre wide. Not really designed to be a 12 month a year sports arena but that didn’t stop us. There’s no doubt he would have felt he was on life’s treadmill for a period but I think by the time he got to his last 25 years of life he had mastered the art of keeping life simple, and it was always part of his make up. You could see it in his very core. The way he dressed. The height of fashion for my dad was St Vincent De Paul. The way he travelled. His preferred mode of transport was the sand shoe. Bought at St Vincent De Paul. The fact that he rarely brushed his hair…….. He was out to impress no one.
That doesn’t mean he didn’t care about people. He was a very compassionate man who had a strong sense of helping people, especially if you were down on your luck. He was a working class man from a working class family and he was a strong believer in social justice. In his own way he fought his entire life for the rights of working class people. He used his pen as his sword and his guitar was his assault rifle. He would line up his targets and execute them using bullets made of humour and supreme powers of observation. My dad wrote a song called Bill from Erskineville. It was one of his classics and it showed how connected he was to people who were struggling in life. I know many of you know every word of this song but for those who don’t, Bill worked in a factory. He was working hard to buy a block of land but before long his deposit on the block of land was being spent on poker machines, horses, lottery tickets and beer. His kids were running wild and his wife was working in a bar to make ends meet. Bill was tragic. But for some reason you get the feeling that this tragic fellow was a cheeky larrikin who was a lot of fun to be with. You know, Bill was a lot like my dad and I think the main difference between Bill and my dad was who they married. My mum saved my dad from being Bill. He knew that. He let my mum drive the metaphorical bus of life whilst he messed around in the back seat with all the larrikins. He knew if he had to sit in the driver’s seat it was an accident waiting to happen.
So he worked out how to keep life simple ……. But that was only part of the puzzle. The reason this was important was the way in which it helped free up his time and energy to do the things he loved. People used to come up to me and say “your dad has so much energy for life. He is so passionate about what he is doing. He’s always so cheerful”. I used to respond by saying ”Of course he’s cheerful and passionate. He’s just doing what he bloody well likes. If I was doing what I liked I’d be running round full of energy and cheeriness too”.
The genius of the man was that he actually knew what was important to him. He knew what he loved and who he loved. And they weren’t material things. It didn’t cost him any money to write a song, or draw a picture. It didn’t cost him any money to go for a run. It didn’t cost him any money to watch the Australian cricket team lose test matches. It didn’t cost any money to be with his family or friends, although there might have been a small investment required when spending a night on the turps singing songs with friends.
He knew what he loved because like everything that was important to him he gave it a lot of thought before he committed to it. As a result he wasn’t a person who chopped and changed the activities that he undertook. He wasn’t a person who chopped and changed friendships. He wasn’t a person who chopped and changed political beliefs or the things that make up your core values. He brought great intellect to everything he was passionate about. So when he was interested in something it wasn’t fleeting, it was deep. He had a long list of passions and there are a million stories I could tell about each one. Of course I can’t do that today. I’m only going to tell a few stories about a handful of the things he loved and that’s not intended to diminish the passion or the love for any of the things that I haven’t mentioned here today.
Music, song writing, poetry and performing were obviously one of his greatest loves. He had an almost photographic memory for songs and poems. This meant he could entertain you non stop for days on end if you had the stamina. The Chapel is full of people that have been performing with my dad and that have been entertained by my dad for decades. In fact for some people who have been part of the Bush Music club the connection goes back 50 years. So on this topic there are many people who can comment on John Dengate’s abilities much better than I. For this reason I have just grabbed a handful of comments that people have left on web sites just so we can get a sense of how his songs and how his performances affected people:
- “John Dengate is national treasure”
- “He is a true legend”
- “No one says it better than a John Dengate song”
- “A true folkie and an inspiration”
The one thing he loved as much as music was his sport. He loved cricket and was a great coach to myself and many of his students in his teaching days. Cricket tests between Australia and England in particular stirred his emotions. On the weekend before he died my family caught up at my parents to celebrate my Nana’s 99th birthday. And she is here today which we are all very grateful. The weekend that we caught up was before the 3rd Cricket test for the Ashes had started so at this point Australia were 2 nil down after 2 test matches. And when we were chatting I thought to myself, should I mention the cricket. Given how poorly Australia was performing I thought, do I ignite the bomb or do I just let it go? I couldn’t help myself. So I said “You been watching much of the cricket?” As predicted that set him off and the reason I am telling this story is not just because it was one of the last conversations I ever had with him, but because the response was so typical in that it was funny, informative and delivered like a teacher.
He said “Do you know where Australia is currently ranked in the world test cricket rankings? They are ranked 4th.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad” I responded
“Do you know who that puts us in front of?”
“No. But I could probably work it out if I had to” I said
“That means the only countries we are ranked higher than is Pakistan, West Indies, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and New Zealand.” In his typical school teacher way he followed this up with a question designed to test if I had been listening properly. “Now remove from this list all the countries that are ravaged by war and poverty and what country are you left with?”
“New Zealand” I said confidently
That was his way of saying he was not impressed with the Australian cricket team.
He loved running. In fact there were times in his life when he was an obsessive runner. It became the fuel for his physical energy to help balance his immense mental energy. He was running marathons in his 50’s and there were many times when he explained to me how running saved his life. Like many of his passions it provided the source for many great friendships.
He loved politics, teaching, good wine and good beer. He was a great activist and fought for many causes. He was delighted with himself when he found out ASIO had a file on him detailing his political activism.
He loved golf. Now up to this point my principal theory has been if you put enough energy and focus into a passion that you love, you will naturally become good at that pursuit, perhaps even an expert. But my dad and golf destroys this theory. He had a terrible swing and it’s only because he has passed away that I am game enough to say this, but he could not play golf. With that said he did have a hole in one to his name so he is one up on me there and I will pay him that.
John Dengate had a wide variety of interests but at the end of the day he was a people person and his greatest loves were his family and friends. The relationship he had with my mum was a match made in heaven. They were perfect for each other and that’s why they had a life long relationship. He was a great dad to Lachlan and I. My brother has many of my dad’s positive qualities. They have a similar sense of humour and live life with similar principles and of anyone left on earth, he is probably most like my dad. In the same way I love my brother I know my dad loved his brother. Unfortunately his brother, Robert, passed away last year. The banter between the 2 of them was always hilarious. Listening to them was like a battle of 2 great minds trying to not only prove who had the most knowledge on a particular subject, but who could wrap that knowledge up in the funniest story. They would be playing golf together right now on heaven’s best golf course. My Uncle was a very gifted sportsman so he would be carving up the golf course. My dad with his swing would be hitting every tree and every bunker and I can hear the banter between the two of them now. “How many shots do you need to get out of that bunker?” Robert would say
“These bunkers are ridiculous” my dad would respond “I’ve come all this way to play golf only to find out Marrickville golf course has better bunkers. Who is responsible for the course management?”
I can hear Robert responding “Judas looks after all the hazards in heaven”.
John Dengate loved his parents with the same adoration that I love my parents. My dad’s mum turned 99 on the 26th July and on that weekend we all got together as a family to celebrate her birthday. It’s hard to lose a friend, a father and a spouse, but I think nothing is harder than to lose a child. That pain doesn’t soften no matter what your age. I just want to thank my nana for bringing us all together on the weekend before my dad passed away. Those final conversations and moments together with my dad will be treasured for ever.
My dad also loved his grandchildren and treated my wife like his long lost daughter.
And to all the people that fill this room. He loved his friends and the interaction he had with each of you was his life blood that gave him the energy to pursue his many passions.
John Dengate was a man with many passions and a huge amount of energy for life. But the clearest memory I have of him where he seemed the most content was him sitting in the sun, after a run in Centennial Park, with a good beer surrounded by life long friends. A simple pleasure, involving a number of passions surrounded by people he loved. It didn’t need to get much more complicated than that.
Keep it simple. Don’t get distracted from doing the things you love, with the people you love. And according to John Dengate, that’s all you need to do to have a good life.
We will now see some photos and hear two of the great songs
Dennis O'Keefe – can you lead us in Waltzing Matilda?
[photos and singing].
Well that’s pretty much it for here. We will now proceed to afternoon tea and continue sharing our wonderful memories.
But before we go I just want to say one last thing to John about his wonderful poem “The Lanes of Woolloomooloo”. John, I want you to know that hearing you recite that poem changed forever the way I looked at the many derelicts that frequented Glebe in those days and, while fewer in number, still do. And it helped me understand why my father could never talk about his wartime experiences in PNG. Today it helps me understand the issues that our returning Afghan soldiers face. That’s just one of many ways you helped me become a better person – thanks mate.
It was you who knew that The Answer’s Ireland, informed us of the social ills of Bill From Erskineville; displayed your admiration of your mother with the popular and oft requested Bare Legged Kate, though your Tongue never ever Went Bungling Through Georgia. You were justly proud of your well-earned titles: the Bard of Galong and a National Treasure.
Without bias we believe you were the ideologically soundest of all! Your abhorrence of war and all things pretentious, deceptive and false; your love of what was right and what was wrong; your humour, though somewhat askew at times, was always erudite and enjoyable.
When I turned 70 you prophesised that you may not reach the same age as me who is six months older. It took five years, but, unfortunately, your prophecy came true.
You have gone Into The Silence and joined the select company of Duke, Alan, Gay, Merro, Chris Kempster and many others of the folk fraternity.
But your voice and music will live for as long as the waratah grows, and the wattle blooms out on the hill.
Vale John Dengate: AUSTRALIAN SON.
Funeral Afternoon Tea for John Dengate, 9th August 2013